Speaking at a 2008 Modern Language Association (MLA) Convention panel, one scholar supplied her own solution to the question “Why teach literature anyway?”
A professor emerita at Stanford University, Marjorie Gabrielle Perloff dedicated the majority of her 20-minute speech to reading large excerpts from Dreams from my Father and commenting on Barack Obama’s highly electable character.
“Why teach literature anyway? I want to posit that the study of literature brings the student closer to actual life than does any other discipline offered in the curriculum,” said Professor Perloff. “It does not promulgate truth, for there is no external unitary truth outside of language, and studying great literature will never make anyone a better person.”
“To read Dreams is to know whatever else, this is not going to be somebody who was going to let himself be swiftboated like John Kerry,” said Perloff. She continued, “You remember when Obama said ‘I’m not going to be swiftboated,’ and the media kept going on and on ‘oh my goodness and oh that’—you learn a lot from reading.”
According to Perloff, the Clinton family, the media and conservatives all failed to understand Obama’s character because they didn’t read his autobiography.
“Without ever mentioning Obama’s political ambition, the memoir shows how and why its author, a candidate all but unknown and untested at the outset of the campaign, had it in him to become president,” she argued. Perloff continued,
“Had the CNN or ABC News analysts read it, they might not have made so many foolish predictions or silly generalizations. ‘Who is Barack Obama?,’ they collectively asked, beating their brows. But reading the candidate’s own self-representation was evidently not an option, for reading literature…occupies an increasingly insignificant position in our culture. For those who actually govern the country, reading seriously and critically seems to have been replaced by being briefed.”
“Indeed, in the political arena, Dreams from my Father was considered less important than The Audacity of Hope, because after all Dreams doesn’t lay out a program, it’s just a memoir of childhood and youth,” she later said.
Perloff is also a scholar in residence at the University of Southern California (USC). Her presentation was recently printed in extended form by the University of Chicago Press “Chicago Blog” under the title of “The Audacity of Literary Studies.”
Perloff is far from alone among academics in praising Obama’s eloquence and inspirational character.
As Accuracy in Academia reported in December, Warren Goldstein emotionally celebrated Obama’s ascent to the presidency; he wrote for the Chronicle Review that “Why was I (along with many others) weeping on Sunday? Because in electing a black president, my country…did something I wanted more badly than I knew, and doubted it capable of doing. I feel more like I belong than I have since I was a young teenager…I was crying because I won’t have to cringe any more in the face of public patriotism.”
“Obama brought the tragedy of the Civil War and all those who were once excluded from American politics to its center,” wrote the University of Hartford history department chair.
Describing the events within Dreams, Perloff told the MLA members that “Much of the time things are pretty bleak and toward the end of the narrative Obama learns that his revered father, the mythic African prince, was in fact a drunk and a polygamist, a brilliant and gifted man who had made all the wrong choices.” This point was lost on David Haven Blake, who when reviewing both candidate’s biographies for the Chronicle of Higher Education equated the lives of Obama Senior and John McCain’s father, a four-star admiral.
“When both men reflect on the meaning of family, they focus on their patriarchs, the hard drinking, demanding men who were absent for much of their youth—Obama’s because he returned to his native Kenya, McCain’s because he was frequently at sea,” Blake wrote for the Chronicle last September. He also suggested that “College students across the country will soon find the book on their reading lists, where it will occupy an honored position next to the writings of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Ann Jacobs, and Malcolm X.”
In his book The Obama Nation, Jerome R. Corsi describes Obama’s autobiography as taking significant liberties with the “facts” of the protagonist’s life. (Corsi is also the co-author of Unfit for Command, part of the 2004 “swiftboating” movement Perloff denigrates).
“Obama openly admits he is offering a psychological autobiography, not a chronological one. The dialogue is an ‘approximation’ . . . the characters are ‘composites’ . . . ‘events appear out of precise chronology,’” wrote Corsi. In addition, Dreams “reflects Obama’s inner perception of his personal past . . . what we are told by Obama outright is that much of the autobiography is not factually true, at least not as written,” he argues.
Perloff interpreted the “fantasies” within Dreams in a totally different fashion.
“Ironically, ‘this whole thing,’ if we take Dreams from my Father as synecdoche, is a fairytale, not, in Clinton’s derogatory sense as being false, but in having a fairytale plot (rags to riches) that anticipates a happy ending,” writes Perloff for the U-Chi press blog, repeating her MLA statements.
“Indeed there would have been plenty of the candidate’s ideas and programs to criticize or disagree with, but lack of experience was not one of his problems, nor was elitism, and least of all a secret allegiance to Islam,” she said at the convention. Paraphrasing Bill Clinton’s criticism, she parodied “Give me a break: this is just a fairytale.”
“Yes, and fairytales have curious psychological veracity,” she said. (Never mind that Bill Clinton’s comments were directed at Obama’s Iraq policies, not Dreams, contrary to the perception furthered by this academic’s statements).
Bethany Stotts is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.